Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King
By Richard Michelson; illustrated by Zachary Pullen
Sleeping Bear Press, Feb. 2011, $16.95
Early in Ernest Thayer’s poem Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888, a “sickly silence” has fallen on the patrons of the game. But when “mighty Casey,” with his “sneer curled” lip and defiance gleaming in his eye, comes to the plate, 5,000 throats and tongues cheer for him and 10,000 eyes focus on his every move.
Casey is such a fan favorite that when he takes the first two pitches – both called strikes – spectators yell out “kill the umpire!” and “fraud!” Casey has to silence both chants and motions to the pitcher to ensure that the game can proceed. Casey confidently stands his ground, as his scorn turns to hate. But however beloved and intimidating he may have been, Casey ends the game by striking out.
The same could not be said of the figure of Lipman Pike – Lip – illustrated by Zachary Pullen in Richard Michelson’s new book, Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King.
On page 17 of the 32-page picture book, Lip, born Lipman Emanuel Pike in 1845, holds a bat in his hand as he poses in front of a dramatic sky worthy of the Hudson River School. Lip, who incidentally bats left, is mustachioed and dressed in the palette of a park ranger (rather than a Texas Ranger). With his black socks pulled up and hunched over to greet the incoming pitch, Lip – though his knuckles are not lined up properly on his bat – is sure to deliver on that much anticipated hit that would later elude Casey.
However many words Pullen’s illustration of Lip is worth, Michelson’s words beside the picture are quite sobering. Though Lip helped the Philadelphia Athletics win 23 of 25 games, and though he hit six home runs in one game and was the team’s best player, Lip’s teammates scorned him for being a professional athlete – perhaps the league’s first paid player. The left fielder added, “I hear that Pike’s a Jew. How can we trust him when we play against Brooklyn?” So, Michelson writes, the Athletics voted Lip off the team.
Even Lip’s mother had been skeptical when her son told her the Athletics’ captain had offered him $20 a week to play baseball (his dad was offering $2 a day to work in his store). “Who ever heard of anyone being paid to chase a ball?” Lip’s mom demanded. For the boy who “couldn’t stand still” in his father’s shop – playing the biblical entrepreneur Zebulon to the Issachar of his brother Boaz, always studying for his bar mitzvah in the shop’s back room – it did seem farfetched to be playing “Base” professionally.
In Michelson’s version of the story, Lip’s parents had argued about whether their sons should be traipsing around Brooklyn playing Base. “Not my sons!” Mrs. Pike told her husband of Lip and Boaz. “If grown lads chased after a leather ball in Europe, people would call them childish. Boaz is almost a man, and when Lip finishes his chores, he should exercise his mind.”
Mr. Pike had disagreed. “I won’t let Base interfere with the boys’ education But in America even the smartest young men chase balls like silly boys. We want our children to fit in with their neighbors, not to live like foreigners in their birthplace.”
Seven days after his bar mitzvah, Lip, with his dad’s approval, joined a junior baseball league. “A couple of ladies in lawn chairs were picnicking in the park and their young sons were climbing nearby trees, but Lip imagined that everybody in Brooklyn was preparing to watch the match. He felt butterflies rise in his stomach and his knees go weak,” writes Michelson. It was no stadium packed for Casey, but so began Lip’s career, which, each year, averaged 20 homeruns, a .321 batting average and 332 runs batted in.
Not only did Lip play for the Brooklyn Atlantics, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Troy Haymakers, Baltimore Canaries, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Brown Stockings, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Cincinnati Reds, Providence Grays, Worcester Ruby Legs and New York Metropolitans, but he also played for the infamous Boss Tweed.
Pullen’s illustration of Lip’s first day shows the boy – whose face is still awkward and not yet that of a man – standing on a mount preparing to swing at an incoming baseball. But though Lip is the subject of the painting, the background is arguably more interesting. Pullen paints several children at play – some even hanging from a tree – as well as some chassidic-looking figures, maybe a father and son, who are the only figures who are oblivious to the game that is ensuing. The two figures walk toward the right side of the painting. Perhaps the boy is off to his bar mitzvah lesson and perhaps his father agrees with Mrs. Pike.
But Lip’s attention zeroes in on the baseball – which due to the perspective of the painting is larger than life. It is impossible to tell from the image if Lip has his head covered (he is hatless), but, according to James L. Terry’s “Long before the Dodgers: baseball in Brooklyn, 1855-1884,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1893, after Lip died, that “Many wealthy Hebrews and men high in political and old time baseball circles attended the funeral service.”
Michelson’s story ends with Lip, after having defeated a horse in a race, striking a majestic pose – looking up at the heavens, where the baseball is surely headed, a la many iconic baseball photographs – with the crowd cheering. Of course, one fight Lip couldn’t lick was heart disease and he died at age 48.
In an author’s note, Michelson sheds some light on the history behind the story. According to Michelson, “a small but growing wave of Jews” was leaving Europe to come to America when Lip grew up (his family was Dutch). Since they were mostly literate and had experience as merchants, the Jewish immigrants were “mostly” welcomed. “Organized anti-Semitism was not a major concern, as the number of Jewish immigrants was miniscule compared to the number of Irish and German immigrants,” Michelson adds. Around his bar mitzvah time, when he started playing baseball, about half of the population of Brooklyn was foreign born, and it was not until after the Civil War that Jews were singled out for not “fitting in.”
Emanuel Pike, Lip’s father, did in fact encourage his sons to assimilate (via baseball), “while still retaining pride in their Jewish identity,” according to Michelson. Waving that bat in the air on page 26 and 27, Lip looks like he’s not only watching the ball fly through the heavens, but is also focusing on the negative space surrounding the ball. Perhaps at that moment he was even uttering a silent prayer.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
All images courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.